U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate, called on LGBT activists to raise the issue of “individual liberty” to help persuade Republican leaders in the House to allow the LGBT civil rights bill to come up for a vote.
In a keynote address Monday night before the 10th anniversary reception in Washington of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Merkley praised the group for its lobbying efforts on behalf of ENDA in the Senate, which voted 64-32 to pass the measure last week.
“And so now you’re all thinking about how you’re going to lobby in the House of Representatives,” Merkley told a gathering of about 200 NCTE members and supporters at the Hamilton Restaurant and Music Hall on 14th Street, N.W.
“And I want to encourage you to do a lot of talking about liberty,” he said. “You go in and you’re talking to a conservative legislator and like, well, ‘I’m not sure about this.’ You say it’s all about liberty. That’s the magical word. That is a word that is deeply embedded in our national DNA.”
Merkley, a longtime supporter of LGBT rights, offered his lobbying advice on ENDA at a time when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has reiterated his opposition to the bill.
NCTE is part of a coalition of national LGBT and mainline civil rights organizations seeking to develop a strategy for persuading Boehner and other House Republican leaders to allow ENDA to come up for a vote this year. Some House Republicans who support ENDA have joined Democratic lawmakers in predicting they have the votes to pass the bill if it reaches the floor.
ENDA currently has 196 House sponsors, just 22 votes short of the 218 votes needed to pass the bill in the 435-member House.
At the NCTE reception Monday night, Mara Keisling, the group’s executive director, praised Merkley for playing a key role in coordinating efforts to pass ENDA in the Senate. She called the Senate passage of the bill, which includes a provision banning job discrimination against transgender people, a historic development.
The group presented Merkley with its Congressional Momentum Award in honor of what Keisling said was his longstanding support for transgender equality.
Jeana Frazzini, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon, described Merkley’s long history of supporting LGBT civil rights during his tenure as a member of the Oregon State Legislature before winning election to the U.S. Senate.
In his remarks before the gathering, Merkley noted that he took the lead in the legislature in helping to secure passage of a state LGBT non-discrimination bill that includes housing and public accommodations protections as well as employment protection.
He said he also sponsored the state’s domestic partnership law. He noted that the legislature passed that law at a time when a 2004 ballot measure approved by voters banning same-sex marriage in the state constitution prevented the legislature from taking up a marriage equality bill.
Merkley said he would be working with Basic Rights Oregon next year on an effort to bring the same-sex marriage question back to the voters in a ballot measure calling for repealing the 2004 ban on gay marriage.
He praised the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) for taking the lead on ENDA for close to two decades and for calling on him to take the lead on ENDA in the Senate after Kennedy became ill and could no longer work on the measure.
“I want to say a message from Vicki Kennedy, who I talked to before the [ENDA] vote and I talked to her yesterday after the vote,” Merkley said in referring to Sen. Kennedy’s widow. “And she could not be more excited that this vision of Sen. Kennedy’s was finally fulfilled 19 years after he first introduced the act in the United States Senate,” Merkley said.
Merkley’s call for using the theme of liberty to lobby for ENDA in the House came one week after Ari Fleischer, a prominent Republican who served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary, came out in support of ENDA and linked the legislation to liberty.
“Allowing people to be successful in their workplaces is an essential piece of individual opportunity and liberty,” Fleischer said in an op-ed commentary published in Politico urging the House to pass ENDA.
Merkley told the NCTE gathering that the liberty theme “is a valuable way to connect with folks who have been out campaigning for their House seats talking about liberty and freedom.”
He added, “And you get to connect with them on that same wavelength of talking about liberty and freedom. And that’s how we need Speaker Boehner to put this bill on the floor of the House.”
NCTE gave its Media Momentum Award to law professor and MSNBC talk show host Melissa Harris-Perry, who spoke to the gathering in a video played during the event. The group gave its Julie Johnson Founder’s Award to transgender activists Dylan Orr, Chloe Schwenke and Amanda Simpson.